A Sparkling Comparison: Champagne versus English Sparkling Wine

Our Wine Director Tom had a lot of fun this weekend marking the 200th Anniversary of Waterloo by reenacting the battle on a far gentler, and all round more bubbly battlefield. Tom pitted the undisputed Emperor of sparkling wine, Champagne, against that cheeky young upstart, English sparkling wine.
As much fun as a pair of grown men had playing with a pair of wine bottles, it did beg the question: how similar are Champagne and English sparkling wine?


Prefer to learn by tasting? See our range of Champagnes and English Sparkling Wines.



The quick answer, and, with all the expected English equivocation: they’re quite similar. Relatively speaking. Except where they're different.


For anyone wondering: yes, both Champagne and English sparkling wine can be sabraged.


 

Sparkling Similarities:


  • Champagne and English Sparkling wine are made from the same grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

  • The same seam of chalk runs under the Channel and informs the terroir of both Champagne region and the South of England (Kent, East Sussex, and bits of Hampshire).

  • The grapes are produced in a similar climate (especially with global warming – where vintages like 2003, 2009 actually favour UK production as was too hot in Champagne).

  • They tend to be similarly priced. Perhaps contentiously, English sparkling wine is rarely cheaper than Champagnes of an equivalent level.

  • Champagne and English sparkling wine are produced the same way, with a first fermentation in tank then, after addition of the liqueur de tirage (sugar syrup and more yeasts), a secondary fermentation in bottle, followed by a period of ageing on the lees under a crown cap, then disgorgement, addition of the dosage, followed by a final period of ageing.

  • And perhaps, most importantly to the thirsty members of our readership – there are definite similarities in how they taste. Both require high acid base wines and even after a second fermentation the palate should be very clean and refreshing with mouth-puckering acidity.

Demi-Sec Differences:


  • Champagne has been producing wines for much longer (the House of Gosset, still producing fabulous Champagne today, was founded in 1584).

  • Champagne vines are much older. Arguably, this means that Champagne root systems have pushed down further into the soils, and the vines are picking up more complexity from penetrating more mineralogical strata.

  • Still on the relative youth of English production - so far there is rather a lack of older British bottles : the most venerable bottle Tom has tried is Nyetimber’s 1996 Blanc de Blancs – which, he reports, is delicious.

  • England (and Wales) produce about 1% as much sparkling wine annually as Champagne. Champagne produces around 300 million bottles from 35,000 hectares whilst England (and Wales) makes 3million from 1500 hectares. And that’s not even taking into account other French sparkling wine production (for instance, this lovely Crémant produced in Alsace).

  • Champagne is incredibly strict about what can and can be called "Champagne", and rigidly demarcates Grand Cru, Premier Cru and other vineyards as well as yields and production factors. It’s still all rather frontier territory in the UK by comparison. Hants-based producer Coates & Seely is keen for growers to sign up to labeling bottles as “Bretagne” but it has yet to catch on.

  • We’ve noted the similarities in taste between the two above, but it should also be acknowledged that most English sparklers taste different from Champagne – they have a fresh apple crunchiness and more marked acidity on the palate and less autolytic (lees) character.